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14 November 2010

How to Rip Vinyl

It's taken me a long time to dust off my old record collection and start ripping them to mp3. This post is a collection of gotchas and general lessons that I've learnt along the way. Yeah... I'm just using that old trial and error again! I'll update if I learn anything new.

Choosing a Record Player

I tried borrowing a record player and plugging it into my PC sound card. The results were variable at best. I'm sure that the quality of the record player is an important factor here, but there're just too many variables to worry about with this approach. My advice is not to bother with it and instead to go for USB.

I bought a USB record player. Long story short: I didn't get the one I ordered. Looking back, it is probably better than the one I ordered so I might have got lucky there. It's bloody good, but not perfect. I'll stick notes below for how you could buy better - I've only really got one niggle.

USB Record Player - DJ-Tech Vinyl USB 10
Setting Up Your PC

This is the easy bit if you've gone the USB route. For PCs running Windows, it is all plug and play. The PC I'm using is running Windows XP and it simply detected the USB Record Player when I plugged it in (remember to turn it on) and it set up a USB Audio Driver for me. But Microsoft aren't as clever as they think they are; they set the default record and playback devices to being the USB Record Player. Easily fixed. Go to Control Panel and alter the default playback device back to being your soundcard.

Installing and Configuring Audacity

Most people of a musical bent will be aware of Audacity. This fantastic piece of freeware has all you need for ripping vinyl. In fact I think it might have even come on a CD with my Record Player. It doesn't matter. Download the latest version, install it and configure it.

Some hints and screenshots to follow here...


Setting up your Record Player

Here is something important that caught me out. My Record Player has a pitch control sliding dial. 'Why on Earth would I want one of those', were my first thoughts, so I ignored it. It took me a long time to realise that the Player was spinning slightly too fast, meaning that everything sounded slightly higher than it should. Once corrected everything feels so much better!

To fix this problem I played a song that I knew what key it was recorded in and simply adjusted the pitch until it matched. I did it by ear, playing the organ alongside. I don't know of any other way of doing this. I switched around to a couple of different records and the one setting seems to correct for all, so I'm guessing this is something that you only need to do once? Drop me a line if you know better.

UPDATE: I was ripping a 78 today and noticed the following advert on the sleeve. It doesn't explain how it works, but there you go... another solution!

By placing the tester on the turntable spindle while the record is playing, you will be able to see if the record is revolving at the speed necessary to ensure true reproduction.

Cleaning your Records

Audacity has a 'click removal filter' and lots of other clever stuff. My advice is not to bother with it. In fact, don't mess around with the Music in any way... Man! If you are going to go to all the trouble of ripping your vinyl, then just take the sounds as they are. The sooner you come to terms with the fact that there are going to be pops and crackles, the sooner you're going to start enjoying yourself.

One thing I would definitely advise though is that you clean your records prior to ripping.

I've never really got into cleaning records in the past. Some of my singles date back to the 60s and maybe even earlier. All have had a hard life. I didn't really know how to go about it, but have ended up using the following process:

I bought a Disco Anti-static Cleaner. This does a great job of cleaning most of the records, but I'm finding that I have to hand clean some of the especially filthy ones prior to spinning them in the Disco. They come up really nice. Don't get too disappointed if some still look scratched-to-buggery... they may still play fine.

UPDATE 5-Sep-2011: I've got really lazy with my cleaning and I think I've found a better way. I'm now using a soft-bristle paintbrush, Fairy liquid and cold tap water! And if you're quick, you can give the centre a quick clean in the process too!

Paintbrush and Fairy Liquid

Finally, make sure your records are dry before you play them. If in doubt, give them a blast with a hair drier. Obviously you won't have one of these and will need to borrow.

UPDATE: Be really careful with that hairdrier! I wasn't paying attention recently and warped a single. This is serious stuff People! Definitely a case of 'less is more'.

UPDATE 5-Sep-2011: No need for hairdriers! Again - I'm being really lazy and drying with a soft fluffy towel. I'm not being that gentle with the records either using it as an opportunity to get off ingrained dirt and to polish the record.

Fixing Warped Records

Thankfully this isn't a problem I've had to deal with much.

I don't think that there is any guaranteed way of fixing warps in records. I've read posts on sandwiching the record in panes of glass and baking the record flat. Sounds like a complete waste of time to me, even if it did work. I reckon that there is just as much chance of destroying the record as of fixing it, so I won't be trying that one!

Bear in mind that you've only got to play that record once to rip it. My trick is to balance piles of coins in the centre of the record to weigh it down on the turntable. It won't permanently fix the warp, but it can often get it straight enough to play.

If you've got better ideas then please let me know.

Fixing Scratched Records

You can't.

The best you can do is to try and stop the needle jumping by adding weight to the arm. In the old days I used to balance a coin on the needle, but my current player has an adjustable weight. Fancy eh!

If it still jumps, you can often fix the song in Audacity. Record the song and gently nudge the needle over a repeating skip. Then edit the file and cut out the skips. It's a faff, but you've only got to do it once. You can often get the end result to be seamless.

UPDATE 5-SEP-2011: I've found a trick that sometimes works if the scratch isn't too bad! I have some alcohol-based cleaner (like the stuff that comes with the Disco). Whilst the record is spinning on the turntable, before you start playing it, just give the problem track a once over with a cloth dipped in the mixture. Try and rip the track before the mixture dries. I don't know if it is the fact that it's wet that holds the needle in place or what. Either way, this seems to be a far better solution than having to weigh down the arm. 

Recording the Sounds

It's a simple as hitting record in Audacity and playing the tunes.

And we finally get to the thing that's missing on my record player... a gain knob. I can't adjust the volume level of the Player, so it records at what it records at. 99% of the time it's spot on, but I've noticed with some older records that it seems to be especially high. You don't hear a buzz, so it's dealing with that, but a small part of me wants to be able to turn the volume down a bit so that I can have a bit more range.

Converting to MP3

Like I said before, don't do anything to the sound on your PC. The only thing I'm doing is trimming the recording and maybe fading in and out to true silence.

Don't bother equalising prior to saving to MP3. Your PC speakers are probably going to trick your ears anyway. If you've got to EQ, then my advice would be to do it on playback.

Have you noticed that I haven't used the word 'Normalise' once? The magic of USB!

And that's all folks. I'll update if I fall down any more holes...

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